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Boise State program gets $16 million to improve K-12 student nutrition in Idaho

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A Boise State University research program is getting a $16.1 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help expand the availability and access to healthier foods in schools.

Boise State’s Center for School and Community Partnerships has been working on the issue since Research Professor Lindsey Turner established the Initiative for Healthy Schools nine years ago.

“We're really interested in pragmatic work and in understanding those voices,” she said. “Talking to school nutrition directors and understanding what they need, and then being the folks who can help them find those resources.”

The grant is the largest of its kind Boise State has ever received. Turner’s team will use the funds to boost awareness and infrastructure to get more local foods in up to 70 schools.

Grants to schools will run in two periods, from spring of 2024 to 2028; half the grants will be distributed in the first two years exclusively in rural areas.

“We can highlight some of the strengths of those wonderful communities and then also learn a lot about what works and then hopefully then translate that later on with the second cohort, which is schools from anywhere,” Turner said.

Rural districts will be able to apply for funding beginning in October. The process for the second wave will begin in 2025.

Turner said 70% of the funding will be distributed directly to schools, the rest will support research, consultation and marketing.

Nationwide, Boise State was one of four recipients announced on March 22 for the USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentive Initiative $50 million School Food System Transformation Challenge sub-grants.

For Turner, it boils down to finding the most effective ways to get healthier food from fewer miles away onto plates in local school cafeterias. "The work that we'll be doing on local procurement is really similar to what's called farm-to-school, which includes not only local procurement - which is our focus here - but it also includes school gardens, farm tours, taste testing; a variety of strategies," she said.

The USDA also expects the program to increase access to meals at school.

“Many schools and even some entire states have successfully provided free meals to all their students,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press announcement.

“We applaud their leadership in nourishing children and hope this proposed change will make it possible for more schools and states to follow suit.”

The USDA simultaneously announced a $10 million dollar grant program to extend nutrition education efforts for school-aged children beyond the lunchroom.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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